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Labor Department sues Lear Corp. for whistleblower retaliation


The U.S. Department of Labor has sued Lear Corp. and several managers for suspending and terminating employees who reported workplace safety hazards.

The lawsuit, filed on March 4 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, Montgomery Division, alleges that Lear — doing business as Selma, Alabama-based foam manufacturer Renosol Seating L.L.C. — discriminated and retaliated against three employees in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The lawsuit filing is the latest move in the legal battle between the company and the Department of Labor, which sought and received a restraining order last year limiting how the company could engage with or threaten retaliation against its current and former employees during an ongoing whistleblower investigation

In May 2014, production line employees Denise Barnett, LeTasha Irby and Kimberly King and several other co-workers provided a letter to Connie Messer, a company human resources manager, about employee exposure to the chemical toluene diisocyanate, according to the lawsuit. The letter contained complaints about the way management handled the chemical leak at their plant, demanded medical screening for all workers, a written explanation of why the chemical alarms had gone off multiple times and an explanation of the steps the company was taking to protect workers' health, according to the lawsuit.

The three employees filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Mobile, Alabama, office regarding the chemical exposure, with OSHA inspectors launching an investigation in late May 2014 and the employees giving statements to the agency as part of the investigation later that year, according to the lawsuit. In June, Ms. Barnett and Ms. King were featured in an NBCnews article discussing their allegations of work-related illnesses.

In September 2014, all three employees were transferred from the company's plant to the warehouse, where they were no longer fully able to take advantage of overtime opportunities, according to the lawsuit. Following their transfers, the employees filed whistleblower complaints with OSHA alleging that the move was in retaliation for protected activity, including talking to OSHA and the media.

In March 2015, Ms. King was terminated and the company filed for a temporary restraining order against her for allegedly making false statements to the media, a customer and other third parties, according to the lawsuit. The Department of Labor intervened in April and received a temporary restraining order in May to prevent Lear from engaging in and threatening retaliation against its current and former employers, including impeding the whistleblower investigation by intimidating, threatening, suspending, terminating and suing employees who participated in the investigation and engaged in protected activity.

In June, Ms. Messer — who is a defendant in the lawsuit — posted a letter she wrote to OSHA on the plant's bulletin board that essentially discredited the agency's recommendations and stated that Lear did not have to follow OSHA's recommendations, according to the lawsuit. Ms. Barnett and Ms. Irby informed OSHA's whistleblower investigator in July that they were being required to perform tasks in a manner that could result in ergonomic injuries.

The lawsuit seeks back wages, interest and compensatory and punitive damages and an order directing Lear to remove all references to the matter from employee personnel records and barring Lear from future violations of the act.

“Employees have the right to raise occupational safety and health concerns without the fear of retaliation,” Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA's regional administrator in Atlanta, said in a statement. “OSHA will continue to seek litigation for companies that violate the whistleblower provisions of the OSH Act to protect employees who report violations.”

A company spokesperson and Ms. Messer could not be immediately reached for comment.

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